In July, the International Conference on Quantum Technologies brought together the leading minds in physics to discuss the latest advances in quantum technology. Throughout the course of the conference, presenters demonstrated cutting-edge research with implications for everything from data security to IT to energy. There’s one industry, however, that is especially poised for massive changes on many levels from quantum technology: health care. Quantum technology is set to revolutionize the way we think about health care, medical data, and even our own biology.
Why does quantum technology hold so much promise for health care? In part, it’s because many cell processes take place at the nanoscale—the world of atoms and subatomic particles. When you get down to the nanoscale, matter stops behaving according to the laws of classical physics and starts demonstrating the unique (and often counter-intuitive) properties of quantum mechanics.
Using the unusual properties of quantum mechanics, the scientists at the conference (and others from around the world) are building medical tools, diagnostics, and treatments that are both ultra-precise and ultra-personalized—tools that will ultimately prolong and improve our lives. Here are just a few of the most promising breakthroughs on the horizon.
Using a relatively new method known as the bio-barcode assay, scientists can now detect disease-specific clues, or "biomarkers," in our blood using gold nanoparticles, which are visible using MRI technology and have unique quantum properties that allow them to attach to disease-fighting cells. These gold nanoparticles are completely safe for human use. This method is also cheaper, more flexible, and more accurate than conventional alternatives.
Mikhail Lukin, a physics professor at Harvard and expert in quantum optics and atomic physics, is also working on manipulating nanoscale particles of diamond for similar purposes. He hopes to eventually use diamond particles, which are non-toxic, to take images of human cells from the inside and detect disease without exposing patients to radiation.
Quantum sensors can also improve the MRI machine itself by allowing for ultra-precise measurements. A novel type of quantum-based MRI could be used to look at single molecules or groups of molecules instead of the entire body, giving doctors a far more accurate picture. Hypres is an example of a company that is working to retrofit MRI machines to be more sensitive—and to work faster—by harnessing the supercurrent phenomenon known as the Josephson effect.
Other quantum-based techniques are also being developed to treat diseases. For example, gold nanoparticles can be "programmed" to build up only in tumor cells, allowing for precise imaging as well as laser destruction of the tumor, without harming healthy cells.
Researchers at the University of York have designed a patch that can be applied to skin in order to deliver targeted therapies sans hypodermic needles. The patch, called Nanject, will be used to deliver cancer drugs without harming healthy cells.
Here's how it works: The nanoparticles are coated in antigens (substances that bind to antibodies) before being introduced to the body, where they attach to cancer cells. Afterwards, the patient is treated in an MRI machine that triggers the particles to heat up and destroy the cancer cells. When the machine is turned off, the particles cool back down and can be removed from the body without any harm to the patient.
Needle-phobic patients may also be thrilled about this kind of advancement: the Nanject patch replaces a single syringe with many tiny ones made of polymer nanofilaments that deliver the medication through hair follicles.
However, there’s another, perhaps more important, benefit to the nanotech drug-delivery route: It removes some of the toughest barriers to distributing medication, particularly in remote and impoverished areas. With a patch, there is no need for a trained nurse or doctor to inject medication; it be self-administered by anyone through a process that's as simple as sticking on a band-aid. Nanotech drug delivery also allows for lower doses, since the nanoparticles aren’t eaten up by stomach acid like pill-based medications. Finally, treatments like the Nanject can help prevent the spread of disease via unsterilized needles—a major problem in developing nations.
Beyond improved disease screening and highly targeted, needle-free treatments, quantum mechanics holds the potential to provide us with more information about human biology.
Australian scientists recently discovered a way to explore the inner workings of a living cell using a novel type of laser microscopy that is built on the principles of quantum mechanics. And using quantum computers, we can more quickly sequence DNA and solve other Big Data problems in health care. This opens up the possibility of personalized medicine based on individuals’ unique genetic makeup.
People want to protect their health data for obvious reasons, so it's important to consider all the ways that it can be hacked. In the future, for example, it may become possible for hackers to retroactively intercept communications.
One of the quantum conference attendees, Nicolas Gisin, works with ID Quantique, a company that is using the strange quirks of quantum phenomena to protect our data in an ultra-secure fashion. Using quantum entanglement in one of the most practical applications of the phenomenon to date, quantum cryptography prevents data from being viewed by anyone other than the intended recipient. ID Quantique already provides security to banks and governments and ultimately sees strong potential in the health care industry.
Innovations built on the principles of quantum mechanics hold the potential to affect health care on nearly every level, from diagnosis and treatment to data storage and transmission. We need to keep a close eye on quantum technology and health care—an area that will benefit from increased funding for research and product development. We’re on the cusp of some thrilling advancements, and we should all educate ourselves on how quantum technology will transform health care in the not-so-distant future.